While many agents start out and stay in the travel industry, others bring skills and a new perspective from impressive careers outside of it.
A business brain, a friendship and a detailed knowledge of luxury hotels combined to lead Dave Allen into travel.
A high-flyer in all senses, he previously worked in South Africa, Australia, Canada and Europe in various sectors from paper to industrial diamonds. When his role as UK-based chief executive of an Australian company ended, he got chatting to agent friend Sandra Mutter.
They ended up co-founding Andara Travel in 2014, specialising in longhaul tailor-made and luxury holidays. She taught him about operators and systems and he shared his destination, airline and hotel knowledge.
“In my business previously I’d basically spent my life on a plane. I was used to doing more than 100 flights a year for 30 years,” Allen explains.
He’s also something of a luxury accommodation geek, noting details such as the bedsheet thread counts.
“I like upmarket restaurants myself as a consumer, so I can suggest them too,” he adds. “It’s part of our service to clients.”
Fortuitously, some of his most visited business destinations were also holiday hotspots, such as Lake Como, where he can personally recommend the likes of Grand Hotel Tremezzo.
His knowledge of Japan, which he has visited 14 times, is also proving invaluable.
“It’s one of the fastestgrowing leisure destinations as well, and I’ve taken most of the train and air routes and stayed in most of the major cities, so I can give advice.”
It’s the more prosaic aspects of agency life he’s found most difficult.
“I have to do admin now! It seems really, really stupid but I’d never in my life done admin. I’d always had PAs to do that, so doing the nuts and bolts of bookings is the hardest,” he says.
Andara Travel has grown quickly and now has six staff. The team’s excellent product knowledge is paying off in referrals.
“Personal recommendations have been our most powerful engine of growth, and I believe that will continue,” says Allen. “Because we love travel we do encourage our people in the business to travel as much as they can, and both Sandra and myself try to holiday in destinations we haven’t been to before.”
His next break will take in four islands in Hawaii, while Sandra will be exploring Sri Lanka. “Filling in the gaps,” Allen says.
Sandie Lehal made the switch two years ago from lawyer to travel agent.
“I felt like I had exhausted my legal career,” she says. “It’s been a brilliant stepping stone, though. I’d have clients coming in to see me, explaining what the problem was, and I’d try to find a resolution. With travel obviously you’re still talking to clients and getting their details to find a solution but it’s so much happier. I’m not wearing grey or black and telling people ‘you’re going to be going to prison’. This is about people’s dreams. I find it so much more rewarding.”
Lehal was a criminal lawyer for 10 years before supporting local authority social workers, then specialising in immigration. After having three children she handled a visa concierge service for her husband’s company. The couple had always travelled in connection with his work, so when she was looking for a more flexible career, homeworking as a travel agent appealed.
She now has her Holiday PA, Disney PA and Honeymoon PA brands under Not Just Travel, who gave her a week’s intensive course then team leader support.
“Every day’s a school day,” she says of her progress since.
However, in her first year and a half she made £500,000 in sales. “The support is immense,” she says. She also credits “great suppliers” for the deals that help retain her clients.
Lehal finds greater motivation in her new role: “I’m not a born sales person but I think, without me knowing it, a fixed salary used to bore me.”
Finding a sales style was tricky, she admits, until she settled on ‘friendly and advisory’. Experience talking to a range of people from criminals to barristers gave her a love of meeting people and she’s joined the group Luxury Networking. By keeping up her old legal contacts she now has barristers among her clients.
Her experience has also helped her score compensation for her delighted clients in cases such as a hurricane rebooking. “I’m so grateful to my legal career for helping me excel in my travel career,” she says.
Sophie Leadley, a personal travel advisor with the brand Viva Vacations, also came to travel from a legal background. She was a solicitor and frequent flyer for 15 years, until a trip-of-a-lifetime honeymoon that made her reassess her career.
As a solicitor, she was a contract adviser for infrastructure projects in the Middle East, Africa and Asia – from a Nigerian hospital to the Dubai metro.
“As the firm became more successful, I was travelling more, which I loved, especially in my 20s,” she says.
When Leadley married in 2015, sheand her new husband took a year out, taking a round-the-world trip for their honeymoon and exploring places she’d visited for work in more depth. Her husband had always been self-employed and it was his advice to “do what you’re passionate about” that led her to relaunch her career in travel a year ago, with the help of the Advantage Travel Partnership.
A colleague she knew from law circles has since joined her at Viva Vacations. Leadley knew her research skills and attention to detail from her legal work would stand her in good stead.
“It’s not stopping with an enquiry when you think you have the answer but keeping going in case you find something else; having the tenacity,” she explains.
Like Lehal, she’s found communications with clients a transferable skill. Building relationships with suppliers through Advantage’s conferences has been particularly helpful, but she admits facing a steep learning curve.
The hardest thing? “I don’t know what I don’t know!” she says.
Though she doesn’t shirk a challenge (tailor-made road trips are her favourite enquiry), with their greater experience, suppliers have sometimes reworked her suggestions.
Happily, she’s found the industry very welcoming.
“The stand-out for me is how supportive and fantastic the travel community is. Everyone is nice, interested in my story and willing to help me out and give me advice. The corporate world was more dog-eat-dog. I still work hard now, but it’s a more collaborative environment.”